Historic Juvenile Collection: Fairy Tales

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Magic spells, glass slippers, talking animals and feisty ogres…this is the stuff many fairy tales are made of. Surprisingly, perhaps, to some of us, fairy tales weren’t always popular and weren’t always for children. Some of my former blog posts have illustrated examples of “appropriate” books for children in the 1600 and 1700s – mostly prayer books, and pamphlets that taught reading and behavior as one subject. Based on the childrens’ literature of the time, it seems that stories of the quotidian life were much preferred to the “witchcraft” illustrated in fairy tales. For those of us who find it hard to imagine a life (or childhood, at least) with no magic potions, fairy godmothers, or transformative kisses, I hope to indulge you with a bit of history, and of course, a new awareness some of the hidden resources at the TC library. This post takes a look at early fairy tales, the time before the once upon a time that many of us know so well.

There is some scholarship on Italian “fairy tales” of the 1500s such as Pleasant Nights by Giovan Francesco Straparola. These were actually written for adults (which explains the naked guy to my left.) The first time we see tales adapted for children is in France at the end of the seventeenth century.

In 1697 Charles Perrault wrote Histories, ou contes du temps passé, avec des Moralitez which was translated (into “Tales of my Mother Goose”- what we commonly refer to as Mother Goose’s Tales) by Robert Samber in 1729. This translation brought tales such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding-hood,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Cinderella” to English-speaking audiences. Largely unpopular as leisure reading, Perrault’s publisher tried to market the book as a French-English school text to increase sales. Critics think the inclusion of “The Discreet Princess” (whose morality was suspect) may have contributed to the failure of this book.

Clearly, it was not unsuccessful for long; there are now countless Mother Goose publications and TC alone  has 44 related volumes.

Project Gutenberg enables us to read Perrault’s Mother Goose online here.

Incase you are wondering, Mother Goose is not actually named for someone. She is an imaginary author presented as the archetype of an English country women- at least that’s what Wikipedia says. Though Perrault’s contributions are noteworthy, it is Marie Beaumont, a French writer of literary fairy tales, who is accredited with bringing fairy tales to the masses. She published “Beauty and the Beast” in The Young Misses Magazine in 1757.

By the early 1800s, attitudes toward fairy tales were changing. Enter Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (you may know then as the Brothers Grimm) and their two-volume collection Kinderund Hausmärchen published in Germany. According to Gale, the brothers’ publication was an attempt at preserving folk literature for German scholars and they were actually re-directed toward children when Edgar Taylor translated them into English. Here’s the link to German Popular Stories, more commonly known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Other important developments in the faraway land of fairy tales are Henry Cole’s The Home Treasury published under the pseudonym Felix Summerly in the 1840s. This was Cole’s attempt to activate children’s imaginations and reestablish fairy tales as appropriate children’s literature with this series of children’s books.

Not surprisingly, TC has a collection of Cole’s books.

Perhaps the hallmark of fairy tale popularity was the publication of Hans Christian Anderson’s Eventyr (Fairy Tales), told for children in English in 1848.

Check out TC’s holdings for Hans Christian Anderson, or his complete works through the Hans Christian Anderson center.

In addition to the quick and selected history I’ve introduced, there is a lot of scholarship on fairy tales, especially on the symbolism and messages they convey.

It is perhaps a bit simple to assume that fairy tales are only about conquering some kind of evil to establish peace. Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces asserts that myths from all over the world have common structures: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment ascribes Freudian theory to fairy tales and argues they can help emotionally and socially prepare children for the world. We may scoff a little at the Puritans who were reluctant to publish these stories for children, but let’s face it, we live in a world that censors Harry Potter. It seems the Puritans who shunned these tales were quite conscious of some of their complicated undertones.

Are poison apples and castles the symbols we use to tell the tales that are central to our consciousness? Could it be the big bad wolf isn’t really a wolf at all?